What Exactly Does A ‘Cocktail’ Wedding Dress Code Mean?

A wedding planner reveals the dos and the don'ts.

When it comes to weddings, the ‘cocktail’ dress code is arguably the most common.

Frequent though it may be, it’s also the hardest to navigate, with the lines between ‘too formal’ and ‘too casual’ often blurred.

“Cocktail wear is one of the most popular dress codes and we have seen it become the default for almost every social occasion in the diary, including weddings,” said wedding planner Nina Wiener of Nina Ma’Belle Weddings.

“Dating back to the early 1920s during Prohibition in the United States, there was a growing space for a type of attire that met the needs of stylish party guests, while also being less formal than their other nightly ensembles. Cocktail wear quite literally means a go-to piece that calls for a bit of decorum, whilst also allowing you to let loose and literally ‘spill cocktails on’.”

And almost a century on, cocktail wear is still going strong, but it has changed significantly since its origin days. In order to deconstruct what the cocktail dress code means for women today, we consulted Nina and sought out her expert tips on what to wear, what not to wear and exactly where you can bend the rules.

Scroll on for all the details on how to do cocktail wear in style.

What is a cocktail dress code for a wedding? 

“Think playful and beautiful but refined, and with your own unique twist. The first port of call is a tasteful, short evening dress. Above the knee is perfect, and of course, show off a little décolletage,” said Nina.

“Your dress should be modest enough that you would be happy for your grandparents to see you in it, but not so formal that you would see it at an evening soirée with the Prime Minister. Think Carrie Bradshaw in Sex and the City.”

“Your little black dress would be a great choice, or go for something a little extra, whether it be a piece in a bold colour or featuring luxurious textures, sequins, feathers or embellishments, make sure you are always thinking ‘tasteful’ with a dash of ‘fun’.”

Worried about your hemline? Don’t be. As long as your ensemble is elegant, you’ll likely get away with whatever length you like, said Nina.

“In the end, the exact length doesn’t matter, the trick is to choose an outfit that looks refined, has creative cuts and is matched with bold accessories that can amp things up.”

Below, a few examples.


Does cocktail dress code mean long or short dress? 

“Although cocktail wear typically involves a short dress, it certainly is not limited to that. These days, it is suitable to detour past the shorter frock in favour of a pantsuit or playful separates. A sophisticated blazer and trousers combination paired with a clutch, is the perfect, elegant look to nail the brief,” said Nina.


What sort of shoes should you wear to a wedding with a cocktail dress code? 

“As for shoes, you should wear heels. Whether it’s stilettos, kitten heels or block heels, a little extra height is usually necessary when it comes to cocktail wear. However, if notable enough, polished flats or sandals will do, too,” said Nina.


Any notes on accessories?

“Think statement jewellery—bold, bright and fascinating. Leave the boring and safe at home and bring out the sparkly and playful pieces. For the ladies who prefer the simpler outfits, statement accessories are the perfect match,” said Nina.

“Which brings us to the cocktail ring. This dramatic ring and its large centre stone is the quintessential cocktail wear accessory. Princess Diana set the scene with her stunning aquamarine cocktail ring, which we then later saw Meghan Markle showcase at her wedding reception. The bigger the better, when it comes to accessories.”

“When it comes to bags, please leave the oversized tote bag at home and bring out your itsy-bitsy mini bag or clutch, which always reads elegance,” said Nina.

“I always say for cocktail attire ‘more is more’, if you want to get noticed. That being said, limit the number of accessories. You don’t need to be dripping in statement pieces, just wear the one or two standout pieces that you absolutely love.”


What should you avoid wearing to a wedding with a cocktail dress code?

Besides not wearing white, Nina recommended steering away from two key areas.

“Avoid ball gowns and day time fabrics like cotton and denim. This is not okay, not ever,” she said.


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